On the way up to Shrine Mont from Richmond last Saturday, driving through Charlottesville and headed toward Afton Mountain, I overheard the talk above on the TED Radio Hour on NPR (yeah, I hear how unbearably WASPy that sounds). I don't often go for serendipity; I think there's not much ground to cross to get from, "God put this radio show on for me for my trip to Shrine Mont," to Joel Osteen's Hallmark-card platitudes like, "God will not allow anything to come into your life unless he has a purpose for it." Faith is not simple. God is not petty.
I think my views on coincidence and grace are much more in line with David Foster Wallace's "This is Water," a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. If you haven't heard or read it, I strongly recommend doing it soon (here's the audio, but please come back). In the address, Foster Wallace says, "Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." So driving up Afton Mountain, the barrier separating central Virginia from the Shenandoah Valley and Shrine Mont, I chose to see a direct connection to between what I’ve given to and received from St. George’s Camp, and Drew Dudley’s “lollipop moments.” Let me share one of my own.
I was a weird kid. My weirdness probably peaked in 2000, my first year at St. George's, starting as a third session camper after moving back to Virginia from Washington State. (Joe Wingenbach, St. G's director from 2009-2011 and my cabin counselor in 2000, disputes my weirdness, but he's probably just being nice and this is my personal history so I'll tell it however I want.) In 2000, I was always intimidated by the rush of Type-A campers signing up for the "best" free electives, so I would usually just pretend like I didn't care what free elective I ended up in and take the dregs of the open spots on the sign-up sheet for the least popular options. The truth was that I did care: I cared that I didn't end up in a sports-related elective. I was – and still am – a sweaty, smelly kid who sucked at basketball and baseball (also still true). So soaking through and stinking up another t-shirt just to have my ankles broken by my buddy Peyton Bowman – of an unfairly athletic and talented Virginia clan – was something I actively avoided.
But then one day there was a girl, and said girl wanted to go to the same free elective as me. There were a few slots left in the Ultimate Frisbee elective, led by my counselor, Joe. A sports elective wasn't ideal, but I was a pre-teen and there was a girl who wanted me to go to the same elective as her. I don't remember much of how the actual game went, but let's go with my ego and say that it went pretty well. Or maybe it went poorly; I'm not sure which made-up memory is better for this story.
What I do remember is Joe saying to me after the game, "I'm really glad you came out to this today, man."
I understood the implication: I avoided sports and he was congratulating me for stretching beyond my comfort zone. Joe didn't know about my hormonal-led motives for playing; actually, he probably did, but that's not an important detail either. What's important is that that memory has stuck with me and resurfaced each time I find myself facing a decision that will stretch me beyond my comfort zone.
"I'm really glad you came out to this today, man," is a simple declaration that has no roots in performance evaluation. Joe wasn't congratulating me for a game well-played or telling me "great effort" because I stunk up the field. That's why it doesn't matter that I don't remember a single pass, catch or point during that Frisbee game.
I have learned over the years that my competitiveness will drive me to do my best at the task at hand. If I can get into first gear, second, third and fourth will come, or I'll keep trying until they do. As I worried over whether or not I'm ready to make the jump from a 4,000-student public high school (Robinson in Fairfax) to a 1,500-student private college with vastly different manners and values (Sewanee), I thought of Joe on the other end of my first semester, the other end of graduation. "I'm really glad you came out to this today, man."
Starting to catalog all of the "lollipop moments" at camp could go on forever: Charles Cowherd teaching me through cabin clean-ups that being disciplined and being cool were not mutually exclusive characteristics; Izzie Fuqua, 2008 program director, taking me aside after a particularly poor decision and "gently" reminding me that I had a responsibility to care for my fellow counselors, not just my campers; Will Peyton teaching me during staff meetings to apply the David Foster Wallace-style of critical thought to the everyday life of camp. That the work that goes on at camp is just as important – and often more – than anything else I might face.
At a St. George’s closing worship last year, feeling a little out of place and like I was reliving past glories, Taylor Trobaugh, my former camper turned counselor, handed me an extra body string. I’ll never forget that little, crucial moment of welcome.
Each year at St. George’s, if the camp has successfully come together as an inclusive, loving community – as the Body of Christ – toward the end of the session camp will symbolize this by tying together each individual body string into one big necklace. In my first year at camp, Rad Burt, our director, gave the body strings to me first at the worship service where the tying happens. Unlike most of the stories above which I think I’m telling for the first time, I told Rad about this “lollipop moment” 13 years after the fact, paddling around with him and his family in the LGRA pool in North Side Richmond. If I were to rename “lollipop moments,” I would probably call them “body string moments.” And why not? Drew Dudley’s lollipop experience is hyper-personal to him and the person he affected. Hyper-personal to me is the memory of Rad putting the body strings around my neck, giving me a hug, and instructing me and each person after me to pass the strings on until everyone in camp had felt the weight of the community we'd created around their neck. I don’t remember who I passed them to next. Maybe to my best friend, Spencer Wise, because I was 11 and that seemed meaningful and safe at the time. It doesn't matter. I passed them on to camp.
I'm certain that I've given campers and maybe some counselors body string moments of their own, not because my ego makes me that sure of myself, but because those moments just happen at camp, without exception and in droves. It’s in the DNA. I don’t want to end with a TED Talk-esque call to action or moral imperative to pick up the phone right this second and call your third session counselor. As David Foster Wallace says in “This Is Water,” it’s hard work to choose to imagine the lady who just screamed at her kid at the grocery store as a beloved child of God, but it brings us freedom when we choose to think that. It’s hard work to tell the people who affected us so deeply that they did. Maybe it’s been years since we talked to Charles or Izzie or Will, or telling the story makes us vulnerable. But if we choose to tell the stories of our body string moments, to offer the ways the weird, smelly, un-athletic kid in us was profoundly affected by camp, our stories might spread like the Shouting Prayer into the Valley of the World. I’m going to keep trying to tell these stories and hopefully I’ll hear Joe on the other end of each one, "I'm really glad you came out to this today, man."
By Ed Keithly
Ed Keithly is the editor of this blog. As he mentions above, Ed first came to Shrine Mont as a St. George's camper in 2000, returning in 2007 to work as a counselor. He's worked at Shrine Mont in some capacity every summer since.
In his day job, Ed works as the vocation officer serving the Diocese of Virginia, shepherding future priests and deacons through the discernment and formation process and seeking to strengthen diocesan programs for future leaders of the Church.
Ed graduated from Sewanee in 2010. He lives in the Fan District of Richmond.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.